'X-Men' composer loves music from rock to Bach

Composer Michael Kamen believes in melody, in passionate, soaring, lyrical tunes - the sort that bring tears to your eyes in a movie such as, oh, "X-Men."

Say what? A glorified comic-book-based flick (opening today, see review, page 15) about mutant humans battling each other for control of the planet, as a vehicle for Mr. Kamen's beautiful music?

But of course, says the musician, whose oeuvre is exceeded only by his ambition. "It's a real shame that there's this perception of a separation between [different] kinds of music," says Mr. Kamen, who formed one of the first rock-classical fusion groups, The New York Rock and Roll Ensemble. "People respond to good music, whether it's from Mars or classical music or wherever."

While he has made a career of demolishing boundaries between musical genres, composing a millennium symphony for the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, as well as recently conducting for an album from the heavy-metal rock band Metallica, he has also created a diverse body of soundtracks for dozens of the top films from the past two decades, including "Frequency," all the "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon" films, and "Mr. Holland's Opus." He is, well, a die-hard defender of the power and place of film scores.

"Movie music has become the classical music of the 20th century," says the New York native, who attended New York's prestigious Juilliard School of Music to study classical oboe, but whose parents were friends with American folk greats such as Pete Seeger and Lead Belly.

"Music is meant to move us," says Kamen. "I come from two traditions, one from the Pete Seeger and Lead Belly worlds, the other classical that worships Bach." He embraces them both. "I'm a devout believer in the strength of classical music to reflect and help us understand ourselves," he says.

As for music in movies, "the contribution music makes to the movies is emotional context," he says. "The best music has emotional weight that moves people - as it has for 500 years."

From his early days as a jug band musician, Kamen has collaborated with musicians from tenor Luciano Pavarotti to Pink Floyd, composed chart-topping rock ballads along with scores for the Joffrey Ballet. He has won three Grammys, been nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes, and his recent soundtrack for the animated film, "The Iron Giant," won the Annie Award, animation's highest honor.

For Kamen, making music for movies is another form of collaboration. "I try to make myself a character in the film and add movement and energy and pace to a story," says Kamen, even one that he admits is contrived, like "X-Men." "If I want to add real pathos or tension, I'm going to have to work really hard."

His early exposure to musicians as social activists has also shaped his view of the role of music and musicians, one that crystallized during his work on the film "Mr. Holland's Opus." His own school experience had provided him with instruments. "When I did that movie, I didn't realize the movie was true, that the schools ... have no musical instruments," he says. He helped found The Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, which in the last year has given out 10,000 instruments. With that film, Kamen says he "grew up and realized we had to take responsibility." Life is "about realizing our potential to make the world a better place."

Kamen's conviction was reinforced by a backstage encounter at the Grammys with childhood role model, Seeger. "I said to him, you've been an activist your entire career.... Are you disappointed at the world today?" His answer was pure '60s idealism: "Pete turned to me and said, 'I don't think we've ever had it better. Individuals are so committed because everybody realizes they can make a difference.' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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